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Will Armenian Civil Society Remain Electric?

Protests at the 2008 presidential elections in Armenia. Wikipedia image taken by Serouj.

Protests at the 2008 presidential elections in Armenia. Wikipedia image taken by Serouj.

Over the last decades, civic spirit and capacity for collective action has ebbed and flowed in Armenia, a small landlocked country in the South Caucasus.

That all changed with  Electric Yerevan, a protest movement that flowered last year after Armenia’s Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) announced in June 2015 its intentions to increase the price of already costly electricity by 16.7%.

On June 19 people gathered at Freedom Square under the banner “No to Plunder”, a reference to alleged corruption in the Russian state-owned energy holding Inter RAO that produces Armenia's electricity and top levels of the country's government.

Armenia places 95th of 175 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. Thus, despite some progress, corruption remains endemic in almost all spheres of public and political life.

By June 22 the demonstrations had become a sit-in at Baghramyan Avenue, a stone's throw from the Residence of the President in the capital city Yerevan. A day later police moved in with water cannons, bringing thousands more out in protest at the government's excessive use of force.

According to some estimates there were 15,000 people in central Yerevan, a city of 1,000,000 people, at the peak of the protests.

The protestors demanded that Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan cancel the rise.

Eventually, although the electricity company still took more in fees from the government, those increases were not passed onto consumers, while a state audit into the company's activities was announced.

Public hearings related to Electric Yerevan continued in the months after the utilities hike was abandoned, with some representatives of the movement calling for the nationalization and subsequent privatization of the electricity company.

Before the movement began Armenia had experienced a few moments of civic awakening, only to return into a slumber.

To many, Armenian civil society appeared as an extension of the NGO sector.

Genuine collective action has been driven by growing distrust towards authorities in the country.

According to the Caucasus Research Resource Centre Armenian citizens have even less trust in their government than neighbours Georgia and Azerbaijan.

“We can say that everybody was interested in [Electric Yerevan], both political and civil societies,” Vaghinak Shushanyan, one of the activists in the movement, told Global Voices. “The movement is a social one, but the demands [that were made] were put in front of the politicians.”

The question of whether Electric Yerevan was a tipping point or another false dawn remains open.

In December a referendum was held in Armenia, where 63,35% of voters said ‘Yes’ to adopting a parliamentary system of government favoured by Serzh Sargsyan's Republican Party of Armenia, despite some minor violations.

Opposition to the referendum was significant and the ‘No’ campaign proved an innovative attempt to undermine loud government messaging, even as it failed to inspire the same public uproar as a protest over electricity price hikes.

After a tumultuous 2015, this year may shape up as a defining year in terms of determining how far Armenia's newly assertive public can push a government and political elite used to getting its own way.